Don’t Look Up & The Gaslighting of Climate Scientists and Advocates
Over the years, it’s been quite clear to me that being a scientist in the public eye — or a science communicator, or an activist advocating for action on an issue that the science made clear is catastrophic — is an extremely difficult thing to be. There’s a certain level of public scrutiny that has to be dealt with, along with attacks on your credentials from politicians and industry executives who find it convenient to peddle another narrative. Pair that with a news media that doesn’t understand what scientific certainty is, and which doesn’t have even an adequate level of scientific literacy, thinking that a disagreement from 3% of experts warrants equal time to “both sides of an issue”, and you got the jist of what it’s like being a climate scientist or communicator or advocate. Now wrap all of that with an insane about gaslighting, with politicians and media pundits backed by fossil fuel executives calling you an alarmist, or “well-meaning” leaders calling you “cute” for fighting for your future, and you have the precise amount of shit that you have to deal with as a climate action advocate. The above is precisely the kind of attitude that gets staratizes in the movie Don’t Look Up.
As a film, Don’t Look Up perfectly satirizes the insanity that is climate denial, and by doing so, also provides a cathartic experience of what it feels like to be gaslighted as a climate action advocate. It shows the insanity that takes place when denying an extremely real scientific phenomenon, and how that can have devastating consequences for all of life on the planet. It also shows the way that scientists can become enemies of the political and business establishment if they don’t walk in lockstep with what an administration wants, and it also shows how particular leaders can use friendly “scientific” voices to justify their actions. The movie, when I watched it, was a visceral experience, almost cathartic in a way because, even though I don’t face a lot of scrutiny in the work that I do, I understand that other climate action advocates have faced that scrutiny. And, Don’t Look Up finds a way to make that scrutiny feel all so real, along with the anxiety and anger that comes with political leaders not listening to credible warnings of impending disaster. In the film, the scientists, most furiously Dr. Kate Dibiasky, are gaslighted over a comet, a massive thing that can easily be seen and verified by almost anyone who can do seconds of research, while in actual life, we are gaslighted over climate change, a phenomenon that is already underway. And, that can perhaps be the reason why I liked this movie a lot.
Part 1. The Experience of Being Gaslighted
Dr. Kate Dibiasky is an astronomer and a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, and she’s the one who discovers the comet that is about to hit the Earth in the film. With the help of her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy, they are able to contact the planetary defense branch of NASA, who set up a meeting with the president of the United States in the film. The president, Janie Orlean, is a Trump and Palin like political figure, initially dismissing the report of the comet hitting the Earth, mostly because of political considerations. She simply thinks that the news of the comet will affect the midterm results, which are approaching soon for that fictional president. However, when the administration’s own scientists verify the comets’ sighting, and when the president realizes that action against it can be politically beneficial to her, she decides to take action, but in her own grandiose way.
In the first hour or so of this movie, the political gaslighting of the scientists are intensely shown, and sometimes it’s shown in super compelling ways. Gaslighting, in a sense, is psychological abuse that makes the person receiving it question their sanity, credentials, and memories of an event. It can occur in many ways, including through denial of a person’s experiences, or through trivializing them. The person who, undoubtedly, faces the extreme end of this abuse, who has the most vitriol and jokes related to her, is Kate. She is particularly gaslighted in two ways: first, by the questioning of her credentials, and second, through the scrutinizing and humifying of her identity. In a sense, even though the entire country was gaslighted by the media pundits and Orlean’s administration, Kate faced a particular kind of scrutiny that even Randall didn’t experience.
For one, Kate was gaslighted quite heavily because of her credentials. Even though Kate is shown as a competent astronomer and PhD candidate, her credentials are initially questioned quite heavily. The biggest reason why her expertise is questioned is because, even though Randall is her colleague at the same institution, she attends Michigan State University, a school with a tremendous astronomy program, but also a school that isn’t an ivy-league. Orlean’s son, who also serves as her Chief of Staff, quite clearly makes that known to Kate, saying to her that he’s going to double check her findings with the administration’s Ivy-leaguers scientists. This obsession and overrepresentation of Ivy-leaguers in the political and corporate and institutional elite of the U.S. is not a surprising thing, or it shouldn’t be. Ivy-leaguers experience a tremendous amount of privilege, and that’s mostly because these institutions are considered prestigious, and also because a lot of the students have access to networks that allow them to get jobs in various industries. So, when Jason, Orlean’s son, mentions Ivy-league scientists to Kate, it’s supposed to serve as an implicit statement of elitism that seeks to basically tell Kate to stay in her place.
Which brings me to the other way that Kate is gaslighted in the movie: through the humifying of her identity as a woman, in addition to the humifying of her anxiety of the literal comet ending all of life on Earth. The ridicule and jokes mostly start when she appears on a talk show, and frustrated by the lax attitudes of the hosts to the news of the comet, she explicitly yells at them that “we’re all going to die.” Which brings with a litany of memes and public scrutiny over her dating life, the latter spearheaded by her media boyfriend. This type of scrutiny and weirdly intense vitriol finds parallels in our real world. Scientists and science communicators who happen to be women are treated much more harshly when they’re in the public eye. Looking at one example, scientific communicators who happen to be women are more likely to received hostile and sexual and sexists responses on youtube videos where they discussed scientific topics. This is actually not surprising, considering that we live in an extremely patriarchal society, with the natural sciences being seen as a domain for men, considering the public perception of what a scientist is — usually a cis, straight white guy. Thus the reason for Randall to be venerated as an authoritative voice, while Kate is scrutinized for being an “alarmist.”
For correctly stating that the world is going to end if there isn’t any action to divert the comet, Kate is deemed an alarmist, as being crazy. Her anxiety is played for laughs and disgusting comments, highlighting how she is gaslighted and dismissed, effectively making the situation seem vastly more mild than it actually is. Like, a comet is literally hurling towards the Earth, and this existential horror, and the feelings that stem from it, can’t be addressed because it makes Kate seem irrational by any metric. Thus, less prone to be taken seriously. This also has parallels to actual life in the climate sphere. Greta Thunburg, and other teenage girls and young adults like her, do get dismissed as emotional alarmists and children when they advocate for climate action. Greta, being the stand in and symbol for the youth climate movement, gets an insane amount of abuse, a lot of it, weirdly, from older men who are decidedly right-wing. This right wing vitriol of misogyny of ableism, and sometimes disgustedly more when it comes to statements of her appearance and the such, seeks to disregard climate action in its entirety, all because the call comes from an “emotional” teen that is not “practical”. Worrying about the future is not allowed, a space to speak about how that worry affects you isn’t allowed either. Speaking frankly about any type of climate anxiety is not allowed because it can be used as a way to gaslight, to essentially deny that feeling, purposely making drastic action a merely “emotional” response to an issue.
There’s a scene that I think highlights that feeling of anxiety quite clearly, that feeling of urgent longing for someone to listen and acknowledge the warning of a fucking event that can end civilization, and the world, as we know it. It’s the scene that occurs right before Kate blurts out the urgent warning of the comet, when the camera pans to Kate’s face, the voices of the hosts drowning out for brief moments. It’s the feeling of trying to hold onto your sanity, of trying to act “normal” while everyone is making light of a situation that’s terrifying, of a situation that’s deeply unsettling. Those moments of drowning voices, of uncomfortable close-up shots, directly show the intensity of that unsettling feeling that bubbles up inside of Kate, pushing forth the blunt statement of “we’re all gonna die.” The thing that’s sad is that, at that moment, the gaslighting begins for Kate, and by extension, it begins for the entire audience and the fictional citizens of the country also. But, that’s also the point where Dr. Mindy becomes famous, when he becomes popular, a poll-friendly spokesperson for the Orleans administration that initially seeks to do the right thing by diverting the comet off its course. However, donors have other things in mind.
Part 2. Peter Isherwell & The Pursuit of Profits
Being so close to doing the right thing should seem like a momentous occasion, if only a billionaire didn’t have other things in mind. The only reason why the comet wasn’t diverted was because there were supposedly trillions in rare metals on that deadly thing, making it acceptable for the comet to hit the Earth. And, all for a bunch of cellphones, which brings with it more profits for the stand in billionaire character: Peter Isherwell. The thing about disaster management, or action towards a problem, is that it cannot impede on any sort of profits in a capitalist world. Thus, the reason for continual delay in climate action, and a vaccination effort that tries so hard to not forgo patents so that nations in the global south cannot replicate the vaccines for themselves. Profits must be maintained, and the economy must be the first thing of consideration whenever any sort of action is regarded. Which is the reason why politicians, who have direct ties with the fossil fuel industry, don’t support important pieces of climate legislation. Even though, without action, the deaths of millions, if not billions, of people are locked in due to the climate crisis.
This insane need for maximum profits, above all else, is a fixture in a capitalist system, even more so in a capitalist system that is marked by neoliberalism. It’s a type of system that infantilizes anyone who calls for radical action, thinking of them as naive or not understanding of the complexity of the economy. This type of mentality, and the narratives they spout, do a tremendous job in the delay of climate action, as mentioned before, but also do a lot in bringing to the forefront untested and dangerous technocratic solutions that have no consensus of working to deliver on promises. For instance, one such technocratic solution is carbon capture and storage (ccs) technologies, which require burning more fuels to power ccs plants, causing the continual burning of coal and natural gas, and emitting harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. There are also methods and technologies that posit to geoengineer the planet, but they are often unproven, and can cause immense amounts of harm to peripheral countries that often aren’t talked about. For instance, in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein talks about how solar radiant management, basically reflecting back the sun’s rays to cool the planet, is often used as a temporary solution to the warming problem. However, a problem with that is that it can produce side effects such as ocean acidification, worsen local climates for affected areas of the planet, and a lot of the planet’s responses to geoengineering are hard to model, and thus quite impossible to determine.
There’s actually a quote from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything that, I think, indirectly gets to what Don’t Look Up was about, what kind of thinking it was warning against. When discussing geoengineering, Klein writes,
“We have options, ones that would greatly decrease the chances of ever confronting those impossible choices, choices that indeed deserve to be described as genocidal. To fail to exercise those options — which is exactly what we are collectively doing — knowing full well that eventually the failure could force governments to rationalize ‘risking’ turning whole nations, even subcontinents, into sacrifice zones, is a decision our children may judge as humanity’s single most immoral act.” (284)
And, it is one of those options, the more humane one that benefits all of humanity, that gets disregarded in Don’t Look Up for a chance of increasing the bottom line of Peter’s BASH company. The proven option gets disregard for an option that nobody knows will actually work, with the technology that it’s depended upon, not even passing the scientific standard of peer-review. But, when the administration proceeds with the technocratic option, nothing can stop them from gaslighting the citizens of the fictional U.S., from firing scientists who don’t tow their narrative, from criminalizing challenges to that last solution.
I actually find it quite interesting that Dr. Dibiasky was considered a mere nuisance throughout the entirety of the film, only to be deemed a criminal the exact moment she exposes the dangerous plan of the BASH company — a plan that essentially lets the comet hit the Earth. That subtle thing in the film, the criminalization of Dr. Dibiasky for essentially hurting the perception of the plan of the company, prompts parallels to climate advocacy also. In a sense, there are forms of climate action and advocacy that are tolerated, forms that are like voting, which help, but don’t directly challenge the fossil fuel industry. However, when other forms of protest are engaged with that do directly harm the industry and its profits, protests that seek to block pipeline installations, then that’s when climate action becomes criminalized. As was clear from the Line 3 protests, any type of action that seeks to block pipelines can be met with harsh police action that includes the possibility of protestors getting arrested. Property and profits of these industries cannot be hurt in any way, even when people are going to die as a consequence.
In a sense, Don’t Look Up succinctly satirized the gaslighting that climate scientists and advocates faced over the years, and what they continue to face also. It viscerally got the point across, and the fact that completely untested action caused the comet to hit the Earth, was something that drove the message of the movie home. However, the film was nowhere near perfect, and it got quite a lot wrong in its execution also. For instance, the fact that the movie infantilized the regular citizens of the country in the movie, with it proposing that the citizens were entirely focused on social media and nothing more, was tasteless as a satire. Climate action isn’t continuously delayed because people don’t seem to care; action is delayed because fossil fuel executives buy politicians who profit off of doing nothing. That whole structure is not the fault of the regular person; instead, it’s the fault of the fossil fuel executives, and their crony politicians, who deserve to get charged for their continual disregard.
In a similar vein, the movie was tremendously white and America centric, to the point where it took away the agency of anyone who wasn’t American. Obviously, the movie was an American movie, so it makes sense it would focus on the interactions and follies of the American political system, but it should have made the agency of other actors clear. Other than a brief mention of China’s, Russia’s, and India’s joint mission, the rest of the world was missing. Even more so than the countries of the world, the people of the world were missing also. For instance, the climate justice movement is a global movement that seeks to hold the biggest polluters accountable for their actions. It’s a movement that has people from any walk of life, from any country, of any ethnicity, and those people have a voice that they are able to use to get meaningful action done, even if those actions are considered small. With Don’t Look Up, however, those people were missing, and the extreme whiteness of the movie totally took away from different perspectives that could have been used to make the message of the film more poignant. In a sense, though, there was something about the film that was perfect, and that was that it acknowledged, quite bluntly, that we had everything. A miracle of a planet that was perfect for life, and after 4 billion years, evolved intelligent life. Maybe that planet, and the intelligent life within it, should be protected by any means. Or, maybe, we can skip to dinner at the end of the world.